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How a movie star cheated death

By Rediff Movies
December 12, 2018 16:33 IST

'I had no idea whatsoever about my condition.'
'When I asked for a mirror to see how I looked, the nurses and doctors exchanged wary glances with each other, refusing to oblige me.'
'I learnt many months later that my head was bloated to three times its size.'
Sanjay Khan goes back in time with memories of the Mysore fire tragedy.

Photograph: Kind courtesy Sanjay Khan

Sanjay Khan has lived his life under the spotlight.

We know many things about him, and yet, there are so many things we don't.

In his memoir, The Best Mistakes Of My Life, we get to see a side of Sanjay Khan we don't get to see at all.

In this excerpt, Sanjay Khan talks about the accident during the shooting of The Sword of Tipu Sultan where he had 65 percent third degree burns, spent 13 months in hospital and underwent 73 surgeries.


I came round from my blackout feeling very cold and thirsty; my throat was parched.

My chief assistant director, Vijay Pandey, and my cousin, Mirza, quickly reacted to my request and poured water in my mouth.

I asked, 'Where are you taking me?'

'We are taking you in this ambulance to a hospital in Bangalore,' they replied.

My condition was beyond pain. I asked for water again and went into delirium.

My mind created horrific images like I was sinking into nothingness and the burning pain in my body left me swinging between consciousness and unconsciousness.

IMAGE: Sanjay Khan in The Sword of Tipu Sultan. Photograph: Kind courtesy Sanjay Khan

I knew Bangalore was 100 kilometres away and that is all I can recall thinking before the pall of darkness descended over my mind.

I learnt later that on that fateful night, our residence in Bombay was flooded with phone calls informing my wife about the fire accident.

When Mohit called and told her what I had instructed him to say, Zarine displayed great fortitude and courage.

She is a firm believer in Sai Baba and she rushed to the photograph, kept at a special place, to make a silent prayer for my life.

By then our house was filled with anxious friends and relatives and there were calls from the families of the other victims.

It was the darkest night in our lives.

Early the next morning, St John's Hospital in Bangalore, where I was admitted, was besieged by fans and media, anxious to know my condition.

IMAGE: Sanjay Khan in The Sword of Tipu Sultan. Photograph: Kind courtesy Sanjay Khan

The nurses and doctors around me looked stunned; it was as if they had never seen somebody in my state because they seemed to want to avoid looking at me.

Had the fire burnt my face? I realised the only two faculties I possessed at that time were my voice, still deep and strong, and my mind, razor sharp even though my head was throbbing and my body felt like it was on fire.

I had no idea whatsoever about my condition.

When I asked for a mirror to see how I looked, the nurses and doctors exchanged wary glances with each other, refusing to oblige me.

I learnt many months later that my head was bloated to three times its size and my hair had turned into tight round curls and was sticking to my burnt black scalp.

 

IMAGE: Mehmood at Zarine and Sanjay Khan's wedding. Photograph: Kind courtesy Sanjay Khan

Before Zarine entered the room, the doctors had apprised her of my condition and told her that my chances of survival were only 10 per cent. But when she walked in, she did not display the slightest fear or alarm.

She approached me slowly with a smiling face, but before she could speak, I told her, 'Don't worry, darling, I'm all right and I will start shooting in the next two weeks.'

The strength and the conviction in my voice, she later confessed, gave her courage and hope.

As for me, the calm composure of her smile, the steady gaze of her serene, beautiful eyes and her gentle voice infused life and vigour into my mind and body, giving me the faith I needed to fight, to stay alive.

IMAGE: Sanjay Khan with daughter Sussanne Khan, daughter-in-law Malaika Parekh Khan, son Zayed Khan, wife Zarine Khan, daughters Simone Arora and Farah Khan Ali. Photograph: Kind courtesy Sanjay Khan

The man entrusted with resurrecting me, Dr Buch, a Gujarati gentleman who had been brought by my good friend Yusuf Lakdawala, to my bedside in Bangalore, whispered in my ear, 'Mr Khan, if you stay in this hospital, you will die. I will save your life; move to Bombay immediately.'

He convinced my family that it was only there that I could receive the intensive and sophisticated care which my extraordinary condition needed.

I am indebted to the late Rajiv Gandhi for his support.

I was told by Ghulam Nabi Azad that when he saw the news flash on Reuters about the fire tragedy while in the middle of a late-night Cabinet meeting, he took Ghulam Nabi aside and told him, 'What a handsome man!' as if he was talking to himself, and then said, 'Our friend is in trouble. Help him.'

He immediately sent Ghulam Nabi Azad to Bangalore with two specialist doctors from AIIMS and further requested the government of Karnataka to rush me from Bangalore to Bombay.

On his instructions, the roads were cleared for the ambulance and a special Indian Airlines plane with thirty of its seats removed to accommodate the stretcher, the medical equipment, the oxygen cylinders and the medical team was made available for my transfer.

My daughter Simone held the bottle of saline high above her head all the way with her eyes closed, praying continuously for my survival.

My cousin Mirza described many months later how the then police commissioner of Mysore had arrived on the scene of the fire, dressed in a raincoat over his uniform and a long whip in his hand like a ringmaster in the circus.

He had remained at the site and managed the situation, but obstinately refused to allow me to be taken to another hospital in Bangalore.

It took great effort to persuade him to do so. There was also a huge drama enacted at the Bangalore hospital amongst the doctors and authorities who were reluctant to let me leave, stating that it was risky to take me away and that I was in no condition to travel.

But I was destined to live. God had sent Dr Buch as my guardian angel.

IMAGE: Sanjay Khan at the Jaslok Hospital in Mumbai after the accident. Photograph: Kind courtesy Sanjay Khan

From Bombay airport, I was rushed to Jaslok Hospital through a specially planned route that had been blocked for other traffic.

On reaching the hospital, I remember asking for the time and somebody said that it was 10 pm on 10 February 1989.

The hospital was surrounded by hordes of press reporters, TV cameras, fans and well-wishers. As they were taking out the stretcher from the ambulance, I remember seeing a multitude of lights flashing.

My brother Shahrukh asked them to stop, but I told him not to keep them from doing their jobs. I even started giving them my profile, still believing myself to be the handsome man I was a few days ago.

The thought never occurred to me that I was burnt beyond recognition. The hospital authorities rushed me to the ICU where I soon passed out.

My wife had taken over the responsibility of flying all the relatives of the injured and the dead to Mysore so that they could be near their loved ones. Many of the badly burnt could not survive.

IMAGE: Sanjay Khan's brother Akbar Khan, sister Dilshad and brothers Sameer and Shahrukh Khan. Photograph: Kind courtesy Sanjay Khan

Zarine, although facing the worst days of her life, because the doctors had informed her that the next forty-eight hours would be extremely critical for me, provided monetary help to the injured and those in hospital. Unbelievably, some of this money was pocketed by wolves posing as relatives.

The essential saline water that was needed to pass through my body was unable to do so due to serious burns which had clogged the veins.

The only recourse available to the doctors was to cut my jugular vein. However, this process had to be performed without anaesthesia as my body was too weak to take any kind of sedation.

Zarine was sitting beside me during the procedure. She told me later that even at the time of this procedure, my light-heartedness gave her strength to face the situation.

She wept with pain and anguish internally, but on her face there was always an encouraging smile.

Along with Zarine and my children, my brothers Feroz, Shahrukh, Akbar Sameer, and my sister Dilshad and kept vigil around my bedside for months.

Farah was nineteen at that time, Simone eighteen, Sussanne thirteen and Zayed, the youngest, only nine years old.

I am also deeply grateful to my cousin Mirza who drove me to Bangalore from the site of my accident, and to my friend Ghulam Nabi Azad who was there by my side, closely monitoring my situation.

Photograph: Kind courtesy Sussanne Khan/Instagram

I had suffered 65 per cent third-degree burns. For a man aged forty-nine to survive such severe burns was unimaginable.

It was a daunting task for both the doctor and the patient. The only word I can use to describe Dr Buch is 'genius', even though he was somewhat eccentric and prone to mood swings.

He was very conscious of the fact that his patient was an internationally known celebrity, and was very possessive of me.

Initially, when he started to work on me, he covered the burns with a special kind of gauze to stop the oozing of pus and blood, but that was not working.

During one of the normal routines, when my stretcher was being wheeled in and out between the surgical wards and my room, a man with a white beard made his way through the hospital crowd to Zarine and pressed a bundle of silver sheets in her hand.

'Please use these,' he said. 'They will heal the wounds.' Before Zarine could respond he had disappeared.

A thought flashed through her mind then, causing goosebumps: Could that have been her patron saint, Sai Baba?

After carefully examining them, Dr Buch used the sheets to cover my burns and the pus and blood stopped oozing from my wounds!

Whoever the old man was, his silver sheets worked.

Thereafter, inspired by the results, the good doctor worked relentlessly to save my life.

Along with a team of doctors and nurses, he performed a number of surgeries one after the other.

They would examine parts of my body which had been spared in the accident and indicate areas to graft from.

Every inch of skin was scraped out from wherever they could find it. The pain was unbearable; I was delirious most of the time.

During those awful nights, my nurse Roxanne, my Florence Nightingale, stood vigil at my bedside and did her best to comfort me.

The Best Mistakes Of My Life

Dr Buch was an enigmatic man and it was difficult to gauge his mood.

I still remember vividly the moment when he walked into my room to seek my consent to administer a new anaesthetic which numbed the patient's ability to feel pain but kept them fully conscious during the procedure.

I really liked the idea and while I was anxious to know how it was done, my innate curiosity and thirst for adventure had me agreeing to it.

Sure enough, even after the anaesthetic had been administered, I could see and hear the sound of surgical instruments being taken in and out of shallow stainless steel trays, the beeping of other machines in the operating theatre; I could also see the team of doctors, assistants and nurses in white tunics performing their respective tasks.

They all looked like white ghosts, mumbling and walking around in slow motion.

It was surreal, like a Salvador Dali painting without colours.

As the doctor had told me, I felt no pain at all, just the sensation of tugging and pulling.

My mind was oddly at ease.

This was a major surgery and it took several hours to complete.

An emergency appeal was made to friends and the public to donate O+ blood which was my blood group, because I needed it on a continual basis.

I came to know later that people from all religions -- Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Zoroastrians -- including students, lined up to donate blood.

I was most touched to know that the young cadets from our armed forces contributed blood towards my treatment.

I remain eternally grateful to these wonderful compatriots.

The 108 bottles of blood that gave me a new lease of life came from all these wonderful people.

Excerpted from The Best Mistakes Of My Life by Sanjay Khan with the kind permission of the publishers Penguin Random House India.

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